Preview: Counterpart (US: Starz)

Soul-searching JK Simmons kicks sci-fi spy ass


In the US: Sundays, Starz. Starts January 21

Science-fiction and espionage seem at first glance to be a perfect combination. Think of how many successful spy shows and movies over the years have also been science-fiction greats: Total Recall, The Champions, Alias, Airwolf and more. Indeed, there’s even a name for the genre: spy-fi.

Look a little harder, though, and you’ll notice that the greater the emphasis on the science-fiction, the worse the show is. The more SF a James Bond movie contains, the worse it gets (invisible cars, anyone?). That’s because – to generalise broadly – the spy genre is fundamentally about people, whereas science-fiction is more about ideas. Those spy-fi classics? They were the ones that remembered to concentrate on both the people and the ideas.


Now we have Counterpart, a show that does its best to give us both big ideas and little people, while also invoking the magic blessing for any spy show: a Berlin location and obvious Cold War parallels. JK Simmons (Law & Order, Whiplash, The Closer, Oz) plays a very little person at a UN spy agency based in Berlin. For 29 years, he’s worked uncomplainingly in the ‘Interface’ department, where he goes up every morning in the same suit to read out sentences to another man from ‘the Other Side’ in a small room, before returning to his desk. His requests for promotion go unheard and he can’t even get an interview.

Meanwhile, his wife Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) is in hospital after being run over six weeks previously, and her brother Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica, Perception) is trying to get her returned to the UK and her ‘true family’. Simmons is passively nice and unable to say or do much in response to all these injustices.

Then one day, he’s dragged by boss Harry Lloyd (Robin Hood, Game of Thrones) to meet chief of security Ulrich Thomsen (Banshee). A top spy from the Other Side wants to defect. The Cold War that’s been going on is thawing and assassin Sara Serraiocco has come over to start killing people on this side – including Simmons’ wife.

Thing is, the Other Side is a parallel universe with which Simmons’ universe has been in contact with for decades but which has diverged over time, and the would-be defector is… JK Simmons.

Now the two Simmons, spy and Mitty, must work together to stop the assassin and whatever’s caused this thaw in the Cold War, while simultaneously looking at each other to see how their lives turned out so differently.

Regrets, I’ve had a few

Although similarities with Fringe are obvious, this is far more a well worn story of male wish fulfilment: the little man, over the hill, wishing for a more exciting life than he ever had, suddenly getting a chance to lead that life. It was the substance of many of the early Man from UNCLE episodes and it’s the essence of Total Recall.

Here, the difference is that firstly, Simmons is a much better, more plausible little man/spy than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Secondly, while there is action and excitement to be had, the show works far better as an examination of roads not taken, what choices you can make in your life that will take it in completely different directions and how much of who you are as a person is caused by external rather than internal factors. Great efforts are made against the overly-stylised sci-fi background to make Simmons and all the other characters seem like real people, albeit with variable success. It’s certainly helped by the supporting cast, with a range of Brits giving great, understated performances, particularly Lloyd, but Thomsen is as good as always and there are also some fine German actors in minor roles, too. More good actors are on the way, too, with the near ubiquitous Richard Schiff and Stephen Rea set to do a turn soon, too.

It works less well as a spy show than you might hope, though, and that’s because of the sci-fi throwing everything out of whack. The Interface department looks cool, for example, but seems ludicrous – why are they doing this? What possible reason could they have for it? Whatever it is, it’ll be nonsense when revealed, I bet you. There’s also far less of Berlin to be seen than you might hope and while the show avoids the tourism of Berlin Station, there’s the obligatory ‘exotic’ club scene.

All the same, Counterpart offers more or less the best of both genres. It’s not exactly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; neither is it Blade Runner. But as a moderately entertaining piece of metaphysical musing – with guns, parallel universes and a surprisingly kick-ass JK Simmons – Counterpart has a lot to offer.

  • JustStark

    That’s because – to generalise broadly – the spy genre is fundamentally about people, whereas science-fiction is more about ideas

    That’s true but it’s not just that they are doing different things; in some ways they are actively antagonistic, in that the spy genre is specifically about people trying to operate within strict limits (about who they can talk to, about what they can say, about what information they can get hold of) whereas sci-fi is often (not always but often) about removing limitations of the real world.

    So you’ve got one genre which is all about how people cope when under greater restrictions than we normally have in ordinary life, and one which is about either exploring the consequences of removing everyday restrictions, or removing everyday restrictions in order to better focus on a metaphor or topic. no wonder it goes wrong so often!

    Having said that, this one sound like it avoids the worst mistakes, and the set-up sounds interesting: if they can avoid the temptation to add sci-fi gadgets but keep with just the oddity of the setting it could work. Not sure how much mileage it has, though, as described it sounds more like the set-up for a single closed film than an open-ended TV series.

    Still, my interest is piqued enough to watch it if it cross the Atlantic to a port I can watch.

    • The technology is unclear. One guy on the Meek JK side had quite a snazzy looking glass smartphone and the cars all look modern; but at the same time, the computers in Meek JK’s offices are all green VDUs and chunky keyboards. No idea what the Other Side has.

      I think keeping the premise to being just a modern day version of Cold War Berlin, complete with its own Checkpoint Charlie, with JK having to go undercover as himself (or vice versa) means they’re keeping the sci-fi to a minimum, perhaps more as a lure to the genre fans and because they want to have that ‘path not taken’ plot, than because they want to do anything about parallel universes.

      • JustStark

        That sounds like a good idea. Do other people have counterparts on the Other Side as well? That could be very interesting. If someone is untrustworthy on one side, might they be on the other was well? Etc etc.

        • They do. However, Harry Lloyd’s character says “Hardly anyone gets to meet their opposite” so presumably the differences between the two universes mean that there won’t be that many people with the opportunity or desire to cross between the two sides.

          Having said that (and I would spoiler cloak this except it’s mostly in the trailer above), Spy JK Simmons tells Meek JK Simmons that in his world, wife Olivia Williams is dead from cancer; Meek JK’s wife is in coma in hospital. However, Spy JK’s Olivia shows up alive and well at the end of the first episode and is probably a spy of sorts, too, judging by her attitude/single line of dialogue, unlike Meek JK Simmons’s wife. So Spy JK Simmons can’t be trusted to tell even himself the truth and clearly the two Olivias are very different.

          • JustStark

            Well, if someone at the start of a story says ‘X hardly ever happens’ then it’s a fair bet the story’s going to involve a whole whopping load of X, innit.

            Now I’m even more interested to see it.

          • Mark Carroll

            If we have so very different yet identically appearing people as counterparts then I would guess that we have had an Other Side for many years but not very many decades.

          • The two universes are supposed to have started to diverge following the creation of the bridge 40 years previously, so I imagine oldies like JK Simmons and co have the same identical origins but changing destinies, whereas it’s a bit more up for grabs with anyone younger

          • Mark Carroll

            That’s a relief: 40 years don’t too greatly break at least one dimension of plausibility.

  • Mark Carroll

    “it’ll be nonsense when revealed, I bet you” is a serious wound but, as this is on Starz, with luck we’ll know much more about it before I am in any danger of spending time with it.

    • Amazon’s usually good for picking up Starz stuff, even the obscure stuff such as Flesh and Bone, so it might be on its way over soon, particularly given the cast and the fact it’s already been guaranteed a second season.